At some point in your academic or professional life, you’ll have to stand in front of people and give a talk about a subject, and quite often, you’ll be asked to prepare visual materials to accompany your talk. You might prepare handouts, but odds are, you’ll be asked to prepare materials that you can project on a video screen.
The classic version of these projected materials is the overhead transparency, a thin sheet of clear plastic that you can run through a laser printer or write on with special markers; this medium is slowly disappearing, but it’s still around. Sometimes, you might be able to prepare paper documents and project them to a screen via a document camera, but doc cams aren’t entirely common, and they can only present static images. Instead, you’ll usually be asked to create a dynamic presentation using software such as PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote. Many other programs exist, including what Google has to offer, but these are the three most common presentation programs.
Each program has its own special abilities and strengths, but they all share common basic principles that you can manipulate to create memorable, effective, and interesting presentations. Here, you’ll learn basic principles to
- select an effective presentation format
- choose readable typefaces
- place visual elements onscreen
- choose colors
- select appropriate backgrounds
- choose visual and audio effects
- deliver a memorable, effective presentation
Three Major Presentation Formats
You can choose from three basic type of format for a presentation based on PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote:
- bullet points
- illustrated points
- speaker’s prop
The format you choose should fit your audience and your presentation’s subject.
Bullet Points. The bullet point format is the default layout that most PowerPoint users and viewers are familiar with. Slides created in this format commonly include a title across the top and a cascading series of bulleted lines of text inside a slide’s main text box. An example of this kind of slide appears below, in Figure 1.
Figure 1: PPT slide using bullet point format
Bullet point-format presentations have several benefits:
- They are easy to prepare. Just type, press Enter for a new line, and press Tab to create a smaller bullet or Shift+Tab to make a larger bullet.
- They are useful for highlighting important words or naming concepts that an audience needs to learn.
- They project a serious tone.
However, bullet-point format presentations also can be boring, and an overload of words will make your audience cringe. You have probably endured at least one bad PowerPoint in your life, and odds are, that bad presentation used the bullet point format.
Illustrated Points. The illustrated points format is similar, but slides created in this type of presentation focus on pictures, and text appears in a supporting role. An example of this kind of slide appears in Figure 2.
Figure 2: PPT slide using illustrated points format
Illustrated points-format slides have several benefits:
- They are excellent for showing conceptual relationships or demonstrating physical relationships between objects.
- People often respond positively to pictures, so illustrated points-format slides also tend to capture viewers’ interest more than all-text presentations do.
These slides require more detailed preparation, though, and they tend to be more visually “busy,” so if your audience has problems concentrating, or if it’s vital that you highlight important words, you may want a more text-based approach.
Illustrated points-format slides can also be combined with bullet point-format slides inside the same presentation. See Figure 3 for an example of a PowerPoint that includes both types of slide.
Figure 3: Combination of bullet points (top) and illustrated points (bottom) slides in one PowerPoint
Speaker’s Prop. The speaker’s prop format is similar to the illustrated points format, but a speaker’s prop almost entirely consists of simple pictures that flash onscreen in rapid sequence. Any text that appears is usually very short, uses a large font, and only appears for a moment.
A speaker’s prop is appropriate for abstract subjects (e.g, the nature of free will), and if it is done well, it can be fascinating and will engage an audience.
However, this type of presentation is often more complex and time-consuming to prepare than a presentation in the other formats, and you run the risk of making it so entertaining that the audience may remember the presentation but forget what you said.
A well-done example of a speaker’s prop presentation appears in this video:
Figure 4: Screen capture of speaker’s prop presentation
Whichever format you choose, remember that the presentation software is your servant; don’t let it tell you what to do. Always modify a template to suit your needs.
As an excellent example of what not to do, consider Peter Norvig’s classic Gettysburg PowerPoint: http://norvig.com/Gettysburg/. It’s a satirical example of how an excellent speech—in this case, Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, widely considered one of the classic speeches in the English language—can be ruined by using presentation software default settings and following a built-in template without modifying it.
How to Choose a Typeface
When you create a presentation, make sure that the fonts you choose are
- appropriate for the subject and audience
- readable from anywhere in the room
- compatible with the computer you’ll be using for the presentation
Appropriateness. Each typeface projects a visual “personality” of some sort, and you should match the font with the audience and subject you’re addressing. For example, Comic Sans is a cheerful, happy-looking font and projects a somewhat childlike ethos; it’s a good match for an upbeat subject for a younger audience. In contrast, Times New Roman is a much more serious-looking font and would be appropriate for an older audience discussing a serious subject.
Readability. Not all fonts are equally readable, and you need to pick typefaces that allow your audience to read what’s onscreen from the back of the room. You should choose fonts that
- have relatively tall lower-case letters
- don’t use extra-thick or extremely thin lines
- have large, open spaces inside the loops, and
- (for a serif font) have large, blunt serifs.
See Figure 5 for examples of typefaces available in PowerPoint, and consider which fonts are most and least readable onscreen.
Figure 5: Examples of readable and unreadable font choices
Of these twelve fonts, the fonts that are most readable onscreen are Tahoma, Georgia, Trebuchet, and Verdana. In fact, Georgia and Verdana were designed for use onscreen. Of the rest, only Book Antiqua is workable, but the letters’ thin parts can be hard to see onscreen, particularly if the background isn’t a single flat color.
Sans-serif fonts are usually easier to read onscreen than serif fonts are, so consider using a serif font for headings and a sans-serif font for slides’ main text. Also, limit yourself to two fonts. If you use more, the screen will look very busy, and the visual clutter may distract your audience.
Most programs have built-in lists of fonts that you can use. For example, PowerPoint 2013 includes the list of combinations that appears in Figure 6.
Figure 6: List of built-in font combinations in PowerPoint 2013
Here is a link to a brief YouTube video that demonstrates how to access PowerPoint’s built-in list of font combinations: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/812erramvb8lvjk/AADwNcH2rqBrl_FjJgcxL3gsa/PowerPoint%20built-in%20font%20combinations.mp4?dl=0.
Feel free to use one of these combinations, but remember that just because they’re built-in doesn’t mean they’re well-chosen or appropriate for your needs. You should always consider changing the default settings.
Compatibility. Not every typeface is available on every operating system, so find out what kind of computer you’ll use while delivering the presentation and choose fonts that will work on that computer.
For example, Helvetica is available on Mac, but it is not available on Windows-based systems; the Windows equivalent to Helvetica is Arial. Thus, if you create a PowerPoint presentation on a PC and then open the file on a Mac, or vice versa, the fonts may not transfer over, and your PowerPoint’s appearance will change, often for the worse.
Here’s a link to a list of fonts shared by Mac and PC versions of Microsoft Office: .
How to Think about Layout
When you place text or pictures onscreen, make sure you
- apply the CRAP design principles
- avoid clutter
- avoid text overload
CRAP Principles. The CRAP design principles are Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. In brief, they work like this:
Contrast: If things aren’t in the same category, make them look very different (e.g., use different fonts for slide headings and main text).
Repetition: Make visual elements consistent throughout every slide (e.g., use consistent colors, callout shapes, font sizes, picture and text box locations, background images).
Alignment: Place things on the screen with a purpose. Don’t just plop images and text in random locations (e.g., equalize spaces between multiple pictures, consistently center or left-align text, line up bullets and numbers).
Proximity: Place related items close to each other (e.g., use a narrow space between a name and job title, a picture and its caption, a main bullet item and its related sub-bullet items).
(The CRAP acronym was invented by a graphic designer named Robin Williams [no, not that Robin Williams] and explained in her book The Non-Designer’s Design Book. If you’re interested in visual design, you might find it fascinating.)
When you design your PowerPoint, you should consider using the built-in Master Slide tool to make sure the visual design elements (e.g., fonts, colors, backgrounds, bulleted items’ alignment) follow the Repetition principle. Here is a link to a YouTube video demonstrating how this powerful function works:
Clutter. Keep your presentation’s design and contents relatively simple.
- Include spaces between lines of text.
- Include spaces between images or other visual elements.
- Make sure that the text is readable.
- Use simple graphics.
If you overload the screen, your audience will feel overwhelmed, and they won’t be able to follow your ideas.
For example, Figure 7 demonstrates a cluttered information graphic full of “chartjunk.” Its 3-D design is unnecessary, the forced perspective prevents the audience from seeing the towers’ actual heights, the callouts overlap, the towers’ transparency doesn’t provide any information for the viewer, and the beveled edges and shadows are distracting.
Figure 7: Cluttered infographic
Figure 8 shows the same data in a simple, clean infographic that an audience can follow.
Figure 8: Uncluttered infographic
Similarly, avoid stuffing slides full of text and creating a “wall o’ words” like in Figure 9. Too much text makes a slide difficult to read and will intimidate your audience.
Figure 9: Wall o’ Words
Try to limit a bullet point-format slide to no more than seven bullets, with relatively short entries under each bullet. Of course, you can actually use as many bullets as you want, but only if you follow the CRAP principles very well. (See Figure 10 for an example of a slide that contains ten bulleted points but is still readable.)
Figure 10: Almost but not quite a “wall o’ words”
How to Choose Good Colors
Black-on-white presentations are easy to read, but they’re often very stark-looking, and your audience may not wish to stare at a bright white screen. Thus, you probably will want to use color in your presentation, and you need to choose your presentation’s colors carefully.
Contrast. Pick colors with high luminance contrast—in other words, one color should be much brighter than the other—so that your viewers will be able to read text quickly and with minimal eyestrain. Avoid extremely high color contrast, though, because extremes in color contrast can make text very hard to read. See Figure 11 for examples.
Figure 11: Examples of color and luminance combinations
Similarly, you probably want to avoid pure white text on a black screen; it’s OK for special cases, but for an entire presentation, it’s overwhelming. See Figure 12.
Figure 12: White-on-black slide design
Emotional Impact. Also consider the emotional effect of colors that you choose. The “cool” colors (darker green, blue-green, light blue, dark blue, blue-violet, purple) are calm and soothing, while the “warm” colors (red-violet, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green) are stimulating. Choose colors that are appropriate for the subject and emotional impact of your presentation. See Figure 13 for an example.
Figure 13: Emotional effects of colors
How to Choose Appropriate Backgrounds
Always make your presentation’s background relate to its topic. PowerPoint, Prezi, and Keynote all allow you to choose from built-in or downloadable background “theme” templates; insert and customize solid colors, gradients, or patterns; or import your own image to use as a background for your presentation. You can use any of these options, but whatever option you choose, the background absolutely must mesh with the topic.
For example, if you are speaking about a computer-related subject, the “Organic” PowerPoint theme template would be a very poor choice. (See Figure 14.) It looks like a sheet of paper attached to a piece of wood by a ribbon, and its text uses a serif body font; there’s nothing about the template that suggests “computer technology.” The same theme template would look entirely appropriate for a food-related subject, though.
Figure 14: Inappropriate and appropriate backgrounds
Also, consider whether the audience has seen the background before. There are only so many built-in theme templates, and chances are that your audience has seen the same background used for a different presentation or has used that same template themselves. In fact, if an event features multiple speakers, sometimes more than one presenter will use the same template, and the audience may get confused and not remember who said what. It is always a good idea to import your own image as a background or to customize templates to fit your needs. See Figure 15 for an example.
Figure 15: Customized “Apex” template from MS PowerPoint 2010
This brief YouTube video demonstrates PowerPoint’s built-in slide designs and how to access and use its Format Background tool: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/812erramvb8lvjk/AADoikR7jSjHHObIwOKX1qCOa/PowerPoint%20built-in%20backgrounds.mp4?dl=0
(As noted in the “How to Think About Layout” section, it would be a good idea to use the Master Slide tool when you customize backgrounds in order to make all the slides look uniform.)
Visual and Audio Effects
You can and should use between-slides transitions, within-slide animations, and sound effects, but don’t go overboard. Instead, use subtle effects, use them sparingly, and only use them to support your points.
Visual Effects. Transitions and animations can help you emphasize points, show connections between ideas, or simply capture your audience’s attention and prevent their eyes from glazing over. (See Figure 16 for a screenshot of the animations menu in PowerPoint 2013.)
Figure 16: Expanded list of animations available in PowerPoint 2013
However, if you overload your slideshow with visual effects, or if you choose splashy effects, you will likely encounter several problems:
- Your audience will pay more attention to the moving images than to the subject you’re talking about.
- Your audience won’t be able to tell if an effect means they should pay special attention or if it’s just another effect.
- Effects will take longer than you expect to finish running, or you’ll forget to cue them. You’ll then go silent as you wait for the animations to finish, and your audience will realize you screwed up.
- Effects will introduce a lighthearted note into your presentation and detract from your professional ethos or undermine a serious subject.
Here is a link to a video that demonstrates how to use PowerPoint’s built-in Animation tool and Animation Pane:
These same cautions apply to Prezi, but Prezi has its own special problems. Instead of switching between slides, you set up a flat “canvas” on which you place text and images, and when you present your talk, Prezi’s camera traces a path between those elements and zooms in on them. (See Figure 17 for an example of paths in Prezi.) Thus, transitions and animations are part and parcel of Prezi, which means it’s doubly important that you control their intensity.
- Prezi will let you place elements at peculiar angles and then “rotate” the camera to emphasize them. If you rotate the camera too frequently, you’ll make your audience seasick.
- You can locate text or images anywhere on the canvas and set up arbitrary motion paths between them. If you make the camera move long distances between elements, you’ll disorient your audience members.
Here is a link to a brief YouTube video demonstrating motion paths in Prezi: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/812erramvb8lvjk/AAC9SRhZy9v-CxNmAvQQtlf7a/Prezi%20sample.mp4?dl=0
Figure 17: Numbered sequence indicating a “path” in Prezi
Sound Effects. Audio cues have the same potential benefits and drawbacks as transitions and animations, but they also have several unique problems of their own:
- Audio clips will sound distorted or tinny unless the computer you are using to present is connected to a good-quality sound system.
- If the audio clip is more than a few seconds long, you’ll need to shout to be heard over it.
- It’s almost impossible to talk over rock or hip-hop. Your voice just can’t compete with the backbeat.
- Music samples longer than a few seconds consume massive amounts of memory, and your file size will be huge.
- Song snippets may be so short that they’re unrecognizable.
- Nobody else likes your taste in music.
In short, no matter what program you use, keep your presentation’s visual and audio effects relatively simple and use them to support your message. The effects should enhance the presentation; they shouldn’t be the presentation.
Your slideshow shouldn’t be the main focus of your talk. Instead, YOU and your message are the main focus, and the presentation should support your talk. Don’t hide behind the presentation or use it as a crutch.
Prepare Notes. Write down key phrases on notecards or, if you will have access to a speaker’s computer while you’re talking, the program’s Notes view. It’s not a good idea to write out a line-for-line script because if you read from a script, the presentation will sound stilted. The best presentations are thoroughly prepared but sound ad-libbed.
Whatever you do, DO NOT read every single word on the screen. Your audience members can read, and you’ll only annoy them. See Figure 18 for an example.
Figure 18: Example of Presenter View in PowerPoint
Practice. Run through your talk and slideshow before you stand in front of an audience. Start up the presentation, say what you intend to say out loud, advance the presentation to match your speech, and time yourself. If you don’t practice, your audience will know.
Face Your Audience. Turn your face toward the audience and make eye contact with them when you speak. If you do, the audience will be able to hear you, and they will be more likely to believe what you say.
When you create a PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote presentation, be sure to consider the principles discussed in this webtext. You now know how to
- choose an effective presentation format
- identify readable typefaces
- position visual elements onscreen
- pick appropriate colors
- choose relevant, useful backgrounds
- choose effective visual and audio effects
- present memorable, effective audiovisual materials
and you can create a successful presentation that will both capture your audience’s attention and provide the audience with clearly presented, easily-extracted information.